Backcasting best first-round matchups of theoretical 12-team College Football Playoff in the modern era

The postseason is a time for introspection and retrospectives. With a 12-team playoff format launching in the 2024 season, it begs the question of how past playoffs might have played out. What brackets would have offered the most intriguing matchups? Here are the best theoretical first-round matchups for every season dating back to the start of the Bowl Coalition era in 1992.
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The year 1992 changed the college football landscape forever. The SEC inaugurated its conference championship game that season, a move that further emphasized the growing significance of conference affiliation at the Division I-A level. The present landscape of mergers, consolidations, and dissolution stems back to this formative period in the sport's modern era.

The Bowl Coalition also launched that season as the first widespread attempt to create postseason matchups between the best teams at the end of each year. Though the absence of the Big Ten and Pac-10 from the coalition hurt its prospects for long-term survival, the Bowl Coalition kicked off a trend of trying to demystify what has always been a mythical national championship. The Bowl Alliance that followed, along with the 16-year run of the Bowl Championship Series and the current College Football Playoff era, all stem from these roots.

As such, 1992 marks the modern era of the sport. And as we approach the 2024 college football season, another landmark awaits in this path toward trying to rationalize the championship. The College Football Playoff expands from four teams to a 12-team bracket in 2024, opening new avenues for Cinderella stories and altering the myths that surround the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves through the championship narrative of each season.

But until the games begin to be played, we cannot know how those myths will evolve over time. What we can do, however, is look back at how seasons have already played out to see what narratives might have unfolded in an alternate universe where the Bowl Coalition got everyone on board and launched a 12-team playoff out of the gate.

In that spirit, let's break down a theoretical playoff bracket for each year back to 1992 to see which dominant stories might have emerged. The rankings used to determine the brackets are as follows:

  • 1992-1997: aggregate of AP and Coaches polls as per Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance practice
  • 1998-2013: final BCS standings for each season
  • 2014-2023: final College Football Playoff committee rankings

In all cases, the rankings and bracket have been adjusted to account for the top four seeds going to conference champions per the stipulations going into place in 2024.